I don't know how many of you remember the old Petulia Clark song "Downtown." I remember hearing on the radio constantly when I was about three or four. There was a time when the downtown districts of towns were their hearts. They were where everything seemed to go on and where the bulk of the businesses were located. It seems to me that at some point in the Seventies (earlier for some towns), downtown districts went into decline. Shops closed and there weren't the variety of businesses that there once were downtown. I think that has changed for some cities, although I can think plenty, particularly small towns, whose downtown districts have never recovered.
Indeed, downtown Huntsville is a far cry from what it once was. Indeed, before I was born we not only had many businesses downtown, but our downtown was historic. It was in downtown Huntsville that the first Westlake Hardware store was opened. For those of you don't know, the Westlake Hardware chain was one of the cornerstones of the Ace Hardware chain. Downtown Huntsville also had a movie theatre, the Roxy, which closed several years before I was born. Huntsville's downtown suffered a blow even before I was born when part of it was cleared to make way for the new bank and the new post office. Still, there were plenty of businesses there when I was young. There was Westlake Hardware, Dave's TV, the drugstore, two grocery stores (Summers and Temple Stevens), and a cafe. Over the years all of these businesses closed. The drugstore and Summers burned. I guess the others just could not make a go of it. The recessions of the Seventies and Eighties took their toll.
Of course, neighbouring Moberly didn't fare much better. At one time downtown Moberly boasted two department stores (J. C. Penney and Montgomery Ward), a Krogers grocery store, two dime stores (Woolworth and Ben Franklin), a Coast to Coast store (a midwestern home and garden chain), and several clothing stores. J. C. Penney, Woolworth, Coast to Coast, and Ben Franklin are all gone now. Even the movie theatres aren't downtown any longer.
I am not quite sure why downtown districts started drying up. I know many of laid the blame at such discount store chains as WalMart, Kmart, and Costco, but personally I am not sure that I buy that. These chains arose in the Sixties and it seems to me that downtown districts really didn't start going downhill until the Seventies and Eighties. I think part of it may have been the phenomenon of the "strip," the length of highway that either runs through or beside many towns. In Moberly many businesses moved out to Business Highway 63, aka Morley Street. Even the theatres are located there now (they built the new Five and Drive beside the Drive In). I think another part could have been the simply the economy of the Seventies and Eighties. It doesn't seem to me coincidence that we went through recessions during these times when so many businesses were closing their doors. In the case of Moberly, I think its downtown was hurt simply by the railrood pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere. Besides the Thomas Hill Power Plant and farming, the railroad was Randolph County's chief industry. I have no doubt when it left it seriously hurt our economy.
At any rate, it does seem to me that downtown districts have recovered to some degree. In Huntsville there is Thelma's Gift Corral, Cindy's Craft Shop, and Cleeton's Flea Market, even though we have yet to get another drug store or downtown grocer. Moberly has a Dollar General downtown and several clothing stores. Of course, Huntsville and Moberly are both small towns. I think it has largely been the downtown districts of larger cities that have really recovered. I remember that Columbia's downtown district was in sharp decline in the Eighties. Now virtually it is filled with an array of specialty shops, everything from Best of the West (specialising in art and jewellery from the American Southwest) to the Danger Room (the local comic book and gaming shop) to several clothing stores.
I can only hope that the downtown districts of small towns recover the way that Columbia's downtown has. There is something to be said for an area in a city where one can go to a variety of shops, even walking from one shop to another. In fact, it seems a lot more convenient that driving to a WalMart, then to an Ace Hardware about a mile away, and then to a theatre that may be a little more further away...